How to Become a Licensed Professional Counselor

If you want a career helping others, counseling may be a good match. Learn how to become a licensed professional counselor today.
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Published on August 30, 2023
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  • Regulations on how to become a licensed professional counselor vary by state.
  • You need a master's degree, to pass a licensing exam, and to complete supervised work hours.
  • Key skills include communication, cultural competence, and professional ethics.

You can play a vital role in your community as a licensed professional counselor. Licensed professional counselors help clients address issues that affect their mental and emotional wellbeing, such as eating disorders, substance use, marriage or family issues, processing trauma, and much more. Learn how to become a licensed professional counselor and explore this fulfilling career path today.

Popular Online Counseling Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

5 Steps for Becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor

The first question about how to become a professional counselor is typically about education requirements. It takes approximately six years of education to begin to become a professional counselor: four years for a bachelor's degree and two years for a master's degree.

After that, you must pass a national examination and complete supervised counseling before you can earn your license. The specific number of hours and the required examination vary by state.

  1. 1

    Earn a Bachelor's Degree

    While a relatively small number of schools offer a bachelor's degree in counseling, most master's programs will accept students with any relevant bachelor's degree, or even substantial coursework, if not a major. Typical majors include psychology, child development, sociology, social work, or other social sciences.
  2. 2

    Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling

    The master's curriculum in counseling includes extensive fieldwork, with an increasing level of responsibility, as well as classroom work. During your master's program, you will typically choose an area of specialization and focus your elective courses and fieldwork on that area.
  3. 3

    Obtain Supervised Fieldwork Experience

    The next step in how to become a licensed professional counselor involves supervised experience after you graduate. Typically, this requires approximately 2,000 to 3,000 hours. Fieldwork offers direct experience with clients and allows graduates to hone their skills under the guidance of a licensed professional.
  4. 4

    Pass the National Counselor Examination

    The standard examinations for licensed professional counselors are either the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Your state's regulations governing how to become a licensed professional counselor may accept both, or require one.
  5. 5

    Obtain Licensure

    The final step is applying for a license. You must apply to your state board, documenting your education and experience, paying the required license fees, and submitting any additional required materials, such as fingerprints for a background check.

What Are the Licensure Requirements for Licensed Professional Counselors?

The steps in how to become a licensed professional counselor follow the same path in most states, including education, passing an exam, and completing supervised hours.

The most common variations are in the exact number of required supervised hours, whether you must pass a jurisprudence exam about the laws specific to your state, and the license title itself. While many states call the role a licensed professional counselor, others use titles like licensed mental health counselor.

What Do Licensed Professional Counselors Do?

Licensed professional counselors often specialize in a particular type of counseling or type of client. The techniques and therapies you use vary based on your specialty.

For example, a pediatric counselor might focus on therapies that use play, while humanistic counseling emphasizes empathy and helping the client to recognize their own potential. As you learn how to become a licensed professional counselor, you will likely identify what appeals most to you.

Counselors work in a variety of settings, including schools, independent practices, hospitals and health systems, residential facilities, military bases, first responder departments, and clinics.

Regardless of setting, responsibilities include working with the client to understand the issue and establish goals for treatment, identifying the most appropriate approach, tracking progress, and ensuring that all interactions follow professional ethics and local laws.

One of the most important laws is mandated reporting. As mandated reporters, a licensed professional counselor must report it to the authorities if they suspect a client is a danger to themselves or others, or if they have reason to suspect a child is being abused.

Key Skills for Licensed Professional Counselors

Some of the most important skills you will further develop as you learn how to become a licensed professional counselor include:

  • Communication, including effective listening and observing body language
  • Cultural competence across many aspects of diversity, including race, sex and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious faith or lack of faith, socioeconomic status, and educational level
  • Adherence to professional and personal ethics
  • Adaptability and flexibility to respond effectively to the unexpected
  • Patience and resilience to setbacks, since counseling does not always produce results as quickly or as smoothly as you would like

How Much Can I Make as a Licensed Professional Counselor?

Licensed professional counselor salaries vary based on your geographic location, the setting where you work, advanced education or certification, and specialty. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn a median $48,520 per year. Among these categories, 80% earn between $30,870 and $77,980.

However, in many states, substance misuse counselors may require just a bachelor's degree, which may skew the figures lower.

Those working in a government setting tend to earn the most, with a median annual salary of $60,450, while those working in residential facilities earn a median $42,900.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor

Can licensed professional counselors practice independently?

Whether licensed professional counselors can practice independently varies by state. Some states allow only licensed clinical professional counselors to practice independently.

Where do licensed professional counselors work?

Licensed professional counselors work in any setting where people need mental health support. These include stand-alone practices, hospitals, nursing homes, the correctional system, schools, military bases, schools, social service nonprofits and government agencies, substance use disorder care settings, and more.

How long does it take to become a licensed professional counselor?

It takes at least six years of education (four for a bachelor's degree, typically two for a master's degree), plus approximately two years of supervised experience.

What is the best degree to become a licensed professional counselor?

The best degree to become a licensed professional counselor is a master's in counseling. However, some states let you earn a license with a closely related degree and coursework in counseling. See your state's regulations on how to become a licensed professional counselor. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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